March 27, 2023
On June 14, 2021, Mr. Biden arrived in Brussels on his first trip to Europe as President. The Brussels Summit Communiqué issued by the NATO Heads of State and Government on that day broke new ground by mentioning China in a NATO public statement for the first time. It said, “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security.”
Three months after the NATO summit, on September 15, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS. China reacted.
On February 4, 2022, three weeks before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing. The joint statement issued after their meeting said:
“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. The Chinese-Russian Joint Statement issued only three weeks earlier led to speculation about whether President Putin had informed his Chinese counterpart about what he had in mind.
Thus, on March 15, 2022, Mr. Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to Washington declared:
“Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation.”
More recently, on February 4, the US military shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon. This is what Comfort Ero, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group said on the incident:
“Much about the incident and its aftermath was troubling. Perhaps most concerning was the way hawkish domestic politics shaped Biden’s response. Certainly, the U.S. had cause to be aggrieved about a Chinese balloon floating, whether by accident or design, over sensitive installations. But in a more rational world, Washington might have expressed stern disapproval of the incursion, pocketed China’s statement of regret and sent Blinken to Beijing for the visit the administration had planned. After all, while the balloon’s shambolic journey across the continental U.S. was serious, it was not that serious; nor did it change either side’s interest in putting a proverbial “floor” under deteriorating bilateral relations. China’s embarrassment could even have given the secretary of state a leg up in his discussions.” [i]
On March 13, 2023, Australia, the UK, and the US announced an arrangement for Australia to acquire a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability through the AUKUS security partnership.
Four days later, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Putin over alleged war crimes.
And finally came President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia last week.
From the day the visit was announced the US media underlined the “alliance” between China and Russia, their “no-limits cooperation”, the possibility that China may supply Russia with lethal military assistance, the two leaders calling each other “dear friend”, and Washington, according to CNN, “watching hawkishly from the sidelines, poured scorn on the idea of China as a peacemaker in Ukraine, accusing Xi of offering diplomatic cover to a thuggish Russian leader who was just cited for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.”
And John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour:
“Where they intersect is pushing back on the United States and our influence around the world,” Kirby said. “Where they intersect is pushing back on this thing we call the rules-based international order. Which I know sounds kind of like a wonky term, but it’s basically the rule of law and the foundational principles of the UN charter by which nations around the world are supposed to abide. And they’re pushing back against that.”
Firstly, China and Russia are not allies like NATO member states, but they are strategic partners avowedly pushing back against the global domination of the US. Thus, one might ask if the picture might have been somewhat different had Washington taken care, in recent years, to engage Beijing rather than escalating the rhetoric over Taiwan and following a policy of containment.
Secondly, no matter what was said about the “no limits cooperation” between the two powers in the February 4, 2022, China-Russia joint statement, their cooperation has its limits. This is not a China-Russia axis yet.
Thirdly, 123 nations have ratified the Rome Statute that created the ICC but China, Russia, and the US are not among them.
And lastly, “the rules-based international order” is indeed a “wonky” term.
Throughout the visit, Presidents Putin and Xi in words and body language projected a cordial relationship but it was clear that the party in need was Russia.
In remarks to the press following the talks, President Putin underlined the cooperation not only between the two countries but also between the two presidents. President Xi pointed out that China and Russia are each other’s biggest neighbors, and consolidating and developing long-term good-neighborly relations with Russia is consistent with historical logic and a strategic choice of China. It will not be changed by any turn of events.
“A wise approach” one might say since the two presidents will leave the stage someday, but China and Russia will always be there.
With the visit coming soon after the China brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement to resume diplomatic relations, attention focused on “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” called by some “China’s peace plan”.[ii] This is only a position paper since the Chinese are wise enough to know that anything going beyond that at the present juncture would lead nowhere.
“The Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development” of February 4, 2022, signed on the occasion of President Putin’s visit to China was a twelve-page document.[iii]
“The Joint Statement on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era” signed by the two leaders on March 22, 2023, in Moscow is a one-paragraph statement on the Ukraine conflict that largely reflects what is said in “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. As such, it must be drafted as an addition to the earlier Joint Statement. Interestingly, it is available on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China but not on the Kremlin website.
Considering that it was issued in Moscow, this short “Joint Statement” is a balanced text. And the phrase “Strategic Partnership of Coordination” in the title is an interesting definition of the China-Russia relationship.[iv]
Beyond what is said in the Joint Statement, it is possible that President Xi advised his host to avoid escalation and references to nuclear conflict and seek ways of ending the Ukraine conflict given its negative repercussions for the global economy, particularly for food and energy security. President Putin’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus is likely to lead to speculation about whether or not he informed President Xi of his intention to do so during the latter’s visit.
In Moscow, the two leaders agreed on expanding their economic cooperation and increasing Russia’s export of natural gas to China. By 2030, Russia will supply China with at least 98 billion cubic meters, in addition to 100 million tons of liquefied natural gas.
China, like Russia, is an authoritarian state. But it does not have a colonial past. It fought two opium wars against the British and the French. It suffered what it calls a “century of humiliation”. Moreover, Beijing advocates multilateralism and seems to grasp the international appeal of peace-making.
It is worth remembering that the Iran nuclear deal could not have been achieved had Iran’s interlocutors across the table not been the P5+1. The JCPOA is now in the freezer. North Korea has tested an underwater drone to practice launching nuclear attacks on enemy seaports. To put it in a nutshell, a combination of competition and engagement through multilateralism in facing perceived risks/threats is a better option than a new cold war.
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in April 2016, President Obama had said:
“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
Unless the US reviews this playbook or adds to it a “peace-making” chapter, every reference to the “rules-based international order” would trigger reminders by Beijing and Moscow about failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Peace in Ukraine seems a long way off, but the Middle East offers many opportunities for such a role. During the past week, there has been some escalation between the “Iran-backed militias” and American forces in northeastern Syria. Reportedly, the US still has more than 900 troops there “to make sure there is no resurgence of the Islamic State.” If that is indeed the case, perhaps Washington could look at the example of the Gulf states and start reconsidering its Syria policy since the most committed regional enemy of the Islamic State is the Assad government.